Interview | Claire Cashmore MBE
Claire Cashmore MBE has won just about everything in para-swimming over the last twelve years; British Champion, European Champion, World Champion, #1 in the World, and Paralympic Champion (plus a further three Silver & four Bronze Paralympic medals).
Claire made a name for herself internationally, at the age of sixteen, qualifying out of the blue for the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 before going on to pick up two medals. How did this very young midlands girl grow to become one of the Worlds most accomplished para-swimmers? We grabbed Claire behind the scenes in the studio to quiz her a little on her career so far... How did growing up in Worcestershire shape you as an athlete... "Obviously, when I was younger, I didn't have the facilities that I necessarily needed, and the pool-time was quite limited so I had to train, a lot of the time, on my own, which was hard but I think that, in one sense really helped me out, because it wasn't easy and I really had to go through those challenging times, and my Dad had to be on pool-side acting as my lifeguard... there was no hiding really, and it made it quite raw... very "back to the basics" of sport.
I did eventually move away to make it slightly easier for me to fit in my swimming & academics, but up to that point, it was really "back to basics".
Going back to your first Paralympics in Athens, you'd only just turned 16 a couple of months before, what was the build-up like before those Games? As a sixteen yr old, what were the days like leading up to your first race? ... "So I basically qualified completely out of the blue... I remember looking at the [qualifying] times, and thinking "oh there's probably no way I'm ever going to do this, but I'm going to go for it"; being quite a determined, young girl I was like, 'I'll give it everything', suddenly I qualified and time just flew-by... I don't think I could tell you much about Athens because I was just in such a bubble.
The thing with the Paralympic Games, it's a completely different environment; you're put in this village, you don't know what's going on in the world around you; it's an amazing environment full of elite athletes, and you've got a food-hall open 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, you've got loads of entertainment, and it's quite easy to get distracted by all of that, so I really, as a sixteen year old, had to reign myself in and remember that I was there for one job, and that is to swim fast.. rather than going out, trying all the different local cuisines, and stuff like that...
I didn't put any pressure on myself, because it was completely unknown... I didn't know any of my competitors.. probably the best head-place I've ever been in really, because I just was "just go there & do what you can"... nobody expected anything because I was just sixteen year old Claire....
But you came away with a couple of Bronze medals?... "Yeah it was amazing, very unexpected... I remember finishing on the wall, I was doing backstroke at the time, and I turned around and looked at the scoreboard and thinking "that's not me! That's not third!"... I looked at my parents in the stands and they were crying with my sisters, so I thought "oh yeah, maybe that is me?!"... my face doesn't show any emotion, because I couldn't believe it"
What followed Athens was a twelve year period where you became one of the most successful para-swimmers of all time. A significant period of dominance, where you picked up World records, and multiple European, World & Paralympic medals... How do you maintain such a level of success and form... over so many years?... "I think [swimming] is something that I love to do, and I suppose I thrive off that success... standing on that medal podium, in your Team GB kit, watching the flag go up is the most amazing thing... it spurs you on each day. I had a bit of a disaster in Beijing (2008 Paralympics), I went in ranked #1 in the World and actually came away with a Bronze medal, and for me that seemed like the biggest failure, but it was actually the best thing that happened to me because I learnt a lot about myself, and that probably made my career longer, because I now knew all these things about myself that I could change, keep making gradual improvements year on year... obviously the Gold was constantly missing from my collection".
Being a modern, professional athlete is no longer something that can be considered a "solo enterprise"; you have coaches, nutritionists, psychologists, etc... how important is a support network at the elite level of sport? ... "Oh it's so important, you have massive teams surrounding you and I wouldn't be able to do it on my own. When I was younger it was slightly easier... but as you get older you need to try and find all those marginal gains, those areas where you can improve by tiny percentages, and you need all those people, with all their expertise to help you get to that point... but it is also the moral support, the psychology, and being able to give you a pat on the back when things have not gone so well, because with any sporting journey there are the highs and the lows which is when you really need that team around you, supporting you.
That's interesting that you've said that; Gracie Elvin wrote here that after the Olympics in Rio, she suffered a huge low... this big emotional low, did you feel the same?... "Oh yeah definitely, this time actually after Rio it was particularly bad; because I didn't really know what direction I was going in... for 4 years, you have this dream and you have a goal, and everyday you are focusing on that goal and then suddenly... it's gone. It's like it's all over... there's an anticlimax, where you ask yourself, "well, what am I doing now? Where am I going?", particularly for me as I was going through a change in my life.. which route do I go down...? Some days I didn't want to get out of my pyjama's, I would just sit there and have no focus... no focus in life, not just what I was doing that day... and you can really see it turning into a bit of a slippery slope... so I quickly set myself little goals for each day, which sounds really stupid, but I think as an athlete you are quite goal-driven, and you need something to get you out of bed.
So I decided to go down the triathlon-route, which straight away got me my focus back, and I was straight back in to being a happy Claire, but there were times when it was really hard.
Everyone expects you to be really happy [after a major competition like the Paralympics], you've just won your Gold medal, you've just won a Silver medal... or whatever it might be; you come back at the pinnacle of your sporting career, why are you feeling so low? You're going to all these cool parties, and getting cool opportunities, but as soon as that all dies-down.... I think a lot of people expect winning a Gold medal to change you & you'll suddenly get all these sponsorship opportunities, all these things coming your way, but it doesn't... you're still the same person, and everything is still the same, and sometimes, I suppose, that can be a bit of a shock as well".
Staying on the subject of "lows", what has been the biggest setback of your career to far? ... "Just before Beijing, about two years before, I got glandular fever... I was at the time ranked #1 in the country and suddenly everyone started to beat me. I was constantly dropping back, my training was awful, I just didn't know what was wrong.. when I finally found out it was glandular fever it really knocked me back... it was really my first taste of losing, which at the time was a set-back but really it actually helped me, because it made me more determined. I think you really need to experience that to be a successful athlete, or to be a successful person in life... you need to experience failure".
You came on to the International scene in 2004... going into Rio you'd won almost every medal going: British Champion, European Champion, World Champion... how different was the build up compared to Athens, or Beijing or London... in Athens you were an unknown quantity, now you are one of the best in the World... "Yeah in Rio I had a completely different mindset to any of the other Games; I normally put a lot of pressure on myself, particularly in London being in front of a home crowd, you put that added pressure on yourself... I'm terrible for beating myself up about everything that I don't do, rather than actually enjoying the good things that I have done.
So going into Rio I thought, 'y'know what, I'm going to enjoy this', and when I stepped through the doors of the village in Rio, it was just a party atmosphere, it felt so relaxed which was really good for my mentality. I just didn't feel the same amount of pressure that I'd felt before. Just focusing on being the best that I can be isn't as easy as it sounds, but it is so true; because that is something within your control... when Russia were taken out [of the Paralympic games].. that was a blip to my concentration; my main rival & the only girl that beat me for the last 8 years was Russian, so I thought "OK, so now I'm number one again... I'm the one everyone will be looking out for", the pressure then changed a little bit which threw me a little... but on the day I did everything that I could do... sadly in my individual race somebody beat me, and she did a massive PB".
So what was it like to finally get the Gold? "It was really weird actually... so I didn't get the Gold in my individual race, and I was absolutely gutted... then I had that one race left, and I didn't really know I was going to be a part of it until the day, and as soon as we got it [the Gold], I just went crazy. I was effin' and jeffin' all over the place & I don't really swear, but I just couldn't believe it... we'd lost the Gold medal to Australia by 0.02 of a second in London, and this was the same race and Australia were coming back at us, so as I saw them coming back on the last length of the relay, I was just screaming, I couldn't control it. It was such a proud moment that will live with me forever... standing on that medal podium with the girls around me singing the National Anthem..."
You've been at the top end of elite para-sports for over a decade, how much have you felt, as someone on the inside... how much do you feel the investment, and perception of para sports has changed over the last few years? ... "There's a lot more sponsorship in para sports now, because there is a lot more coverage. The only way of getting more sponsorship, is to showcase these athletes... rather than being seen as athletes that are just taking part, people are actually seeing us as professional athletes who are really taking this seriously, working as hard as our able-bodied counterparts...
But the investment has massively changed things; the depth of the Paralympic movement, the depth within each class, in each sport... it's only going to get bigger & better. The more coverage we've got, the more people you're going to inspire, the more people that are going to want to get involved".
Moving on to your nutrition... as an elite ate athlete from the age of sixteen, have you noticed much of a change in diet & nutrition?... "I think when I started I would eat raw jelly, and jelly babies before I raced thinking that was the key, I thought "yep, if I don't eat my jelly, I won't be winning my races", but as you grow older and you gain that knowledge, you do change your perception of food... I really like to use fresh ingredients, and make sure that I know what is going into my food, rather than buying sauces or whatever it might be. But also know the calories that your body needs, because you can quite easily under-eat, as easily as you can over-eat".
At this level, is it important to recover/smash a protein shake straight after a workout?... "Yeah I would normally have a protein shake straight after the gym, or one of my hard sessions, but after one of my easier sessions it would be something like a banana and a yoghurt... just making sure you eat within that 40-minute window; getting the carbs and the protein in is essential, and it definitely makes a difference... when I was younger I didn't think about any of that kind of stuff, I'd be "ooh I'll just go home & have dinner, I'm starving so I'll have a few pieces of toast"... but also thinking about how you eat throughout the day, and how you fuel your body.. it is your engine... like a formula 1 car, you wouldn't put cheap petrol in it... what you put in is what you get out".
Last couple of questions! Any gameday rituals or superstitions? "In the room before hand, I joke... I think it is my nerviness, I just laugh & make stupid jokes, and put all my competitors off... when I go out to the block, I always wet my fingers & toes (and rub them on the blocks). Which is a bit random, but apparently it's suppose to increase your sensitivity... someone told me that once & I believed it ever since, so I have to do it! Also, I'll get water down my suit so it sticks to me... silly things that just become part of your routine".
Cheat meal + most common in the household? "Cheat meal... that's tricky, I'm a massive foodie... Id say either a burger or pizza. Meal that I regularly make at home... risotto. Mushroom or prawn risotto, purely because it's so quick and so easy, and it's pretty tasty".